In his father's house at Rajkot, a mehtar called Uka did the scavenging. If Gandhi ever touched Uka, Putlibai asked him to take a bath. Gandhi, otherwise a docile, obedient son, did not like it. The 12 years old son would argue with his mother; "Uka serves us by cleaning dirt and filth, how can his touch pollute me? I shall not disobey you, but the ramayana says that Rama embraced Guhaka a chandal. The Ramayana cannot mislead us." Putlibai could find no answer for this arguments.
Gandhi learnt scavenging in South Africa. His friends there lovingly called him the great scavenger. After three year's stay there, he came to India to take his wife and sons to South Africa. At that time plague had broken out in the Bombay Presidency. There was a chance of its spreading to Rajkot. Gandhi immediately offered his service for improving the sanitation of Rajkot. He inspected every home and stressed the need of keeping the latrines clean. The dark, filthy, stinking pits infested with vermin horrified him. In some houses belonging to the upper class, gutters were used as a privy and stench was unbearable. The residents were apathetic. Poor untouchables lived in cleaner homes and responded to Gandhi's pleadings. Gandhi suggested the use of two separate buckets for urine and night-soil and that improved the sanitation.
The Gandhi family was well known in Rajkot. His father and grandfather served long as dewans in Rajkot and other neighboring states. About 70 years ago, the Prime Minister's barrister so needed guts to go round the home town and make a house to house inspection of the drains. a Gandhi seldom filed to show moral courage in the hour of need. He criticized many western customs but repeatedly admitted that he learnt sanitation from the west. He wanted to introduce that type of cleanliness in India
On his second trip to India from South Africa, Gandhi attended the Congress session in Calcutta. He came to plead because of the ill-treated Indians in South Africa The sanitary condition of the Congress camp was horrible. Some delegates used the verandah in front of their room as latrines, others did not object to it. Gandhi reacted immediately. When he spoke to the volunteers, they said; " This is not our job, this is a sweeper's job." Gandhi asked the broom and cleaned the filth. He was then dressed in western style. the volunteers were astonished but none came forward to assist him. Years later, when Gandhi became the guiding star of the Indian National Congress, volunteers formed a bhangi squad in the Congress camps. Once the brahmins only worked as bhangis. Two thousand teachers and students were specially trained for doing scavenging at the Haripura Congress. Gandhi could not think of having a set of people labeled as untouchables for cleaning filth and dirt. He wanted to abolish untouchability from India.
In South Africa the whites despised the Indians for their slovenly habits. Gandhi inspected their quarters and asked them to keep their homes and surroundings clean. He spoke about it in public meetings and wrote in newspapers. Gandhi's house in Durban was built in western fashion. The bathroom had no outlet for water. Commodes and chamber-pot used by his clerks residing with him. He compelled his wife Kasturba to do the same. He also taught his young sons this work. Kasturba once made a wry face while carrying the chamber-pot used by allow caste clerk. Gandhi rebuked her and told her to leave the house if she wanted to observe caste bias. He was once socially boycotted by his own sympathizers for admitting an untouchable couple in the Sabarmati Ashram.
In a South African jail, Gandhi once volunteered to clean water closets. Next time, sweeper's work was allocated to him by the jail authorities.
After twenty years stay in that alien land, Gandhi at 46 finally returned to India with his party. During his visit to Kumbh Mela at Hardwar that year, he with his Phoenix boys served as bhangis in the mela. The same year Gandhi visited the Servants of India Society's quarters at Poona. The members of the small colony one morning saw him cleaning the latrines. They did not like it. But Gandhi believed that work of this kind qualified one for Swaraj. More than once he toured all over India. whenever he went, he found insanitation in some form or other. The filth and stench of public urinal and latrines in railway stations and in dharmashalas were awful. The roads use d by the poor villagers and their bullocks were always ill-kept. He saw people taking a dip in a sacred pond without caring to know how dirty that bathing place or the water was. They them selves dirtied the river-banks. He was hurt to see the marbel floor of Kashi Viswanath Temple set with stary silver coins that collected dirt and wondered why most entrances to abodes of God were through narrow slippery lanes. Gandhi deplored the passengers' habit of dirtying lanes. Gandhi deplored the passengers' habit of dirtying the railway compartments and said that though few could afford to sue shoes, it was unthinkable to walk barefoot in India. How even in a city like Bombay, people walked about the streets under the fear of being spat upon by the occupants of houses around.
In reply to municipal addressed, Gandhi often said; " I congratulate you on your spacious roads, your splendid lighting and your beautiful parks. But a municipality does not deserve to exist which does not possess model closets and where streets and lanes are not kept clean all the hours of the day and night . The greatest problem many municipalities have to tackle is insanitation . Have you ever thought of the conditions in which the sweepers live?"
To the people he said: " So long as you do not take the broom and the bucket in your hands, you cannot make your towns and cities lean." When he inspected a model school, he told the teachers: " You will make your institution ideal, if besides giving the students literary education, you have made finished cooks and sweepers of them." To the students his advice was: " If you become your own scavengers, you will make your surroundings clean. It needs no les courage to become an expert scavenger than to win a Victoria Cross."
The villagers near his ashram refused to cover excreta with earth. They said: " Surely this is bhangi's work. It is sinful to look at faces, more so to throw earth on them" Gandhi personally supervised the scavenging work in villages. To set an example to them, he for some months, himself used to go to the villages with bucket and broom. Friends and guests went with him. They brought bucketfuls of dirt and stool and buried them in pits.
All scavenging work in his ashram was done by the inmates. Gandhi guided them. People of different races, religions and colors lived there.
No dirt could be found anywhere on the ashram ground. All rubbish was buried in pits Peelings of vegetables and leaving s of food were dumped in a separate manure pit. The night soil too was buried and later used as good rich manure. Waste water was used for gardening. The farm was free from flies and stink though there was no pucka drainage system. Gandhi and his co-workers managed sweeper's work by turn. He introduced bucket-latrines and bicameral trench latrines. To all visitors Gandhi showed this new innovation with pride. Rich and poor, leaders and workers, Indians and foreigners all had to use these latrines. This experiment slowly removed aversion for scavenging from the minds of orthodox co-workers and women inmates of the ashram.
Whenever Gandhi got an opportunity of doing a little bit of cleaning work, he felt happy. To him the test of a people's knowledge of cleanliness was the condition of their latrines. at 76, with pride he said: " They privy I use is spotlessly clean without a trace of smell . I clean it myself." On many occasions , he described himself as a bhangi and said he would be content if he could die as a sweeper. He even asked orthodox Hindus to make him suffer social boycott along with the untouchables.
He visited bhangi quarters and the bhangis always narrated their tale of woe to him. He assured them that there was no disgrace in doing their job and advised them to give up drinking liquors and eating flesh of dead animals. He never supported a sweepers' strike and believed a bhangi should not give up his work even for a day.
In Harijan he defined what an ideal bhangis: " He should know how the right kind of latrine is constructed and the correct way of cleaning it. He should know how to overcome and destroy the odour of excreta and the various disinfectants to render them innocuous. He should likewise know the process of converting night soil and urine into manure." Instead of allowing scavenging to continue as a forced hired labour, Gandhi wanted to lift it to the level of indispensable social work.
During his khadi tour, the sweepers once were not permitted to attend a public meeting where Gandhi was to speak. When Gandhi came to know of it, he told the organisers: " You may keep back your purse and your addresses. I am going to have a meeting with the untouchables only. Let all others who want , come there."
Two years before his death, Gandhi stayed some days in the sweepers' colony in Bombay and Delhi. He wished to share the same lodging and partake of their food but then he was too old for the experiment. Moreover some special privileges were forced on the Mahatma.
Gandhi once went to Simla to have an important meeting with the Viceroy. He sent one leading co-worker to see the bhangi quarters there. When he was told that they have reduced the bhangis to the level of beasts. They earn a few coppers but only at the expense of their human dignity. Look at a bhangi as he eats his surrounded by filth. It is enough to break one's heart."
The sight of a bhangi carrying the night-soil basket on his head made him sick. He explained how with the use of proper instruments, cleaning could be done neatly. Scavenging was a fine art and he did it without becoming filthy himself.
Once a foreigner asked Gandhi: "If you are made the Viceroy of India for a day, what will you do?"
Gandhi said: "I shall clean the Augean stables of the scavengers near the viceroy's house."
" Supposing your term is extended a day more, then?'
" The very same work shall I do the next day."